NYT Editorial: How to Skew Intelligence

[ Although the timing of the “Levin” report — as its critics charge — is probably political and even gets some of its facts wrong (e.g., pertaining to the timing of meetings), it defends important conclusions that cannot be dismissed on the basis of technicalities. Thanks to Alexandra Dadlez for forwarding this editorial. –BL ]

October 23, 2004 | New York Times

It’s long been obvious that the allegations about Saddam Hussein’s dangerous weapons and alliance with Osama bin Laden were false. But as the election draws closer, the remaining question is to what extent President Bush’s team knew the allegations were wrong and used them anyway to persuade Americans to back the invasion of Iraq.

A report issued Thursday by the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, shows that on the question of an Iraqi-Qaeda axis, Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others offered an indictment that was essentially fabricated in the office of Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy.

Mr. Levin’s report does not prove that President Bush knew that the Hussein-bin Laden alliance was fiction. But officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz – as well as Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff and the deputy national security adviser – knew that Mr. Feith’s tailored conclusions were contrary to the views of the entire intelligence community. Mr. Cheney presented them to the public as confirmed truth about Iraq and Al Qaeda.

The Levin report is a primer on how intelligence can be cooked to fit a political agenda. It is another sad reminder of this administration’s refusal to hold anyone accountable for the way the public was led into the war with Iraq.

It focuses on the intelligence operation set up by Mr. Rumsfeld, who had been advocating an invasion of Iraq long before Mr. Bush took office and wanted more damning evidence against Baghdad after 9/11 than the Central Intelligence Agency had.

This operation, run by Mr. Feith, tried to persuade the Pentagon’s own espionage unit, the Defense Intelligence Agency, to change its conclusion that there was no alliance between Iraq and Al Qaeda. When the Defense Intelligence Agency rebuffed this blatant interference, Mr. Feith’s team wrote its own report.

It took long-discredited raw intelligence and resurrected it to create the impression that there was new information supporting Mr. Feith’s preordained conclusions. It misrepresented the C.I.A.’s reports and presented fifth-hand reports as authoritative, all to depict Iraq as an ally of Al Qaeda.

Bipartisan reports from the 9/11 commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that the intelligence community had been right and Mr. Feith wrong: there was no operational relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and no link at all between Mr. Hussein and the 9/11 attacks.

For those who were confused before the war, and still are, by all the Bush administration’s claims – that the hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi official shortly before 9/11, that a member of Al Qaeda set up a base in Iraq with the help of Mr. Hussein, that Iraq helped Al Qaeda learn to make bombs and provided it with explosives – the evidence is now clear. The Levin report, together with the 9/11 panel’s findings and the Senate intelligence report, show that those claims were all cooked up by Mr. Feith’s shop, which knew that the C.I.A. and the Defense Intelligence Agency had already shown them to be false.

We don’t know exactly how much of that the White House knew because Mr. Feith tried to confuse things. He eliminated points that the C.I.A. disputed when he showed the intelligence agency his report, and he put them back in when he sent it to the White House.

The Bush administration called Mr. Levin’s report pre-election partisan sniping. It is far more than that, but voters, unfortunately, won’t get final answers.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, which has reported on the C.I.A.’s actions before the war, has delayed a review of the administration’s behavior until after the election. We also will not see the C.I.A.’s own report because Mr. Bush’s new intelligence chief, Porter Goss, has rebuffed a bipartisan request from Congress to release it.

Voters have to decide whether to hold Mr. Bush accountable for the skewed intelligence cooked up by his administration to justify the war.

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